It's the grape that put California wineries on the map. Zinfandel naturally produces an exotic array of fruit flavors, from nectarine and raspberry to plum and blackberry. The fruit-forward wine is medium- to full-bodied. It's just hard to find. Only 15% of the U.S. grape harvest is used for red Zinfandel. The rest goes toward white Zinfandel, a sweet rosé.
While now synonymous with California, Zinfandel grapes were immigrants to America, just like everyone else. The grape's original home was in Croatia, where it dates back to the Roman empire. Its roots also trace back to the Primitivo variety grown in Italy, thus the wine's alternate name.
Mortal and Venial Zins:
Zinfandel grapes are plump, black-skinned and high in sugar. Zinfandels fall into two basic groups — red and white. (You can decide which group damns you for all eternity. Red seems most appropriate.) When you ask for a Zinfandel, you're technically asking for the red variety, but don't be surprised if the sommelier asks if you meant "white Zin" instead. White outsells red by about 600 percent. You don't need to be a mathematician to understand that this means "a lot." This is for good reason, however.
In the mid-70s, white wine was far more popular than red. To respond to the market, winemakers attempted to create a white wine from Zinfandel grapes by pressing the juices without the skins that create the red color. The result was sweet pink wine ... that people loved. White Zin immediately soared in popularity, perhaps because it didn't stain the tongue and teeth that purplish color. White Zin sales plowed over traditional Zinfandel sales soon after.
One Grape, Many Flavors:
Despite stemming from a single variety of grape, Zinfandels offer an exotic array of fruit flavors. Depending on the vineyard, you might detect notes of licorice, black pepper, cinnamon, oak or vanilla. Wine aficionados often describe the flavor of red Zinfandel as "jammy," meaning it's a bit heavier on the fruit side than other wines. Your first taste of a red Zin is almost candylike in flavor, followed by a spicy finish going down. You're left with lingering traces of smoky tobaccoish flavor.
Red Zin is infamous for its difficultly to pair with foods. This is due to its exhilarating taste and bold flavors, which tend to overpower more delicate dishes. However, if you enjoy shopping the meat aisles and hitting the grill, barbecued beef and pork work quite well with Zinfandel. Grilled poultry, flavorful seafood and zesty sausages also make the cut. If you're a vegetarian, try creamy pasta dishes or strong cheeses. While white Zins are good with all of these, plus fiery offerings such as Indian food, red is a little harder to work with — but well worth the effort.